How America’s Top Chefs Find Inspiration on the Trail

Photo: Kelly Bailey Newlon

Attention to protected landscapes has paid off for these trail-running chefs who forage for new ingredients and connections with wild plants.

You never know what you’ll discover on a trail. For chef Justin Cogley, the Monterey Peninsula trails that traverse California’s rugged Central Coast are where he finds inspiration—and ingredients. The time outside provides more than exercise for the creative, award-winning executive chef of Aubergine, a Michelin-starred hotel restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea. 

Cogley has said that while training for triathlons and ultra-distance trail running events, he keeps his eyes peeled for native plants that grow wild to create his menus. He’s used various edible grasses and greens, mushrooms and flowers for his upscale culinary creations. He also utilizes the Pacific Ocean, which beams blue below the verdant hills he runs, catching abalone himself in nearby Monterrey.

Cogley has made good use of these natural resources. His team’s been nominated for three James Beard Foundation awards, earning Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and Forbes Travel Guide’s Five-Star rating. But food is only half of the equation. When Cogley’s chef mentor, Charlie Trotter, passed away suddenly at age 54, it spurred Cogley (then out of shape) to sign up for the Big Sur International Marathon in 2014. He says that the area’s hilly terrain was also a motivator, having moved to the area from Chicago, which made running and fitness more of a necessity for getting around town. Upon discovering the trails nearby, his cheffing and running became both intertwined and a complementary escape from one another.  

A portrait of Kelly Bailey Newlon Photo: Kelly Bailey Newlon

Cogley is not alone in finding this balance between local running, foraging, and healthy eating. Bay Area private chef and caterer Maria Clementi says that she stays alert for any foraging opportunities while on trail runs. When she spots prickly pears, fennel, acorns, bay nuts, or mushrooms, she returns later with a bucket or large bag. She also forages seaweed on beach runs.

And then there’s Kelly Bailey Newlon of Real Athlete Diets (RAD) Boulder, a catering company that specializes in fueling endurance athletes. She explains how paying attention while she’s out running (or hiking) leads her to not only ideas and ingredients, but connections. “I inevitably run by a field where something is planted and take notice of what kind of crop it is,” she says. “Sometimes I’ll notice that it’s soybeans when it used to be corn, which makes me interested about the regenerative farming of that field.” Newlon notes that she often takes out her phone to capture street signs and addresses, then researching and reaching out to the farmer to learn more. “I ask them what they grow, if they have a farm, if they sell something I can use,” she says.

Recently, Newlon had been searching for buffalo tongue as an ingredient for a friend, Lakota skier Connor Ryan. While on a run in Colorado, she saw animals grazing at an active ranch and decided to knock on the door to the house, “fully prepared to run home with a tongue in my pack.” The rancher obliged, though he didn’t have buffalo tongue on hand. The two connected via email and Newlon got her ingredient a couple days later.

“It’s often about paying attention,” she says. “Sure, when you look down you can find mushrooms and berries, and I always try to keep a little extra room in my hydration pack. But the past couple of years, I’ve been paying attention to so many things that are important and asking, ‘How can we make a change within the industry we’re in?’ As a chef, that’s regenerative agriculture.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.